It’s that season of the year again – houses adorned with multitudes of lights, trees stand camera ready after hours of decoration while families bond over exclusive festival food, films and music. Streets and shops are filled with people eagerly awaiting to take advantage of discounts, clearly not bothered by the cold. It ought to be a time when one revels in the joy of giving by sending gifts to loved ones, or donating to the less fortunate while celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t always this way though – a lot of what we associate with Christmas today is a product of careful planning and consumer-driven commercialisation. A social construct, so to speak.
While most people celebrate Christmas, an increasing percentage of merrymakers don’t see the festival as a religious holiday. Extravagant parties, irresponsible spending and a general flashy display of wealth take centre stage. The true meaning of Christmas is lost in the din of the 1000th repeat of Mariah Carey crooning ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’. In December, it seems, it is perfectly acceptable for people to buy things they don’t really need with money they probably don’t have. Watching painfully contrived and repetitive movies, or singing music that hasn’t changed in years to set a “festive mood” becomes commonplace. It’s no surprise that Christmas is an opportunity for massive commercial enterprises to rake in millions. After all, it is one of the most celebrated festivals around the world.
Most of the Christmas traditions and customs of today began as an effort to popularise religion and cement its place into the populace. The practice of sending out Christmas cards, for example, formally began in 1843 – a cardboard greeting with a jovial group of people participating in a toast etched with the sentiment ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’. A thousand of them were printed that year, and considering the cheap mail rates back then, they sold like hotcakes. Today, the Christmas card is an integral part of Christmas, making the greeting card industry billions over just two months. Other traditions such as decorations, carolling and gifting found their way into pop culture for good.
Economically speaking, the season is a mixed bag. Santa, his elves and retail workers are grossly overworked as Christmas is typically a peak selling season for retailers around the world. It leads to a dramatic increase in sales as people purchase gifts, decorations and supplies to celebrate. In many parts of the world, Christmas shopping season starts as early as October. Black Friday, Super Saturday and more recently, Cyber Monday encourage bulk shopping with customers buying unnecessary products at heavily discounted prices. High budget movies are released during this season, hoping to attract a larger audience as a majority of the population is on holiday.
Various economists have opposing views about the economic effects of Christmas. Classicists believe that the mere dead-weight of the gifts returned or exchanged have a mostly negative impact on the economy. Furthermore, the sudden increase in retail buying means that companies will require extra resources like warehouses, trucks and more for just two months, making it an additional cost for an industry that sits idle for ten months a year. Keynesian economists, however, believe that increased spending means higher profits and an overall boost to employment.
Many, however, believe that a consumerist driven Christmas is not the point of Christmas at all. Giving more to those who already have plenty, disregarding values like charity, humility and kindness while indulging in excessive materialism seems to have many celebrators rethinking the way they spend the holidays. Buy Nothing Christmas is an ongoing protest and reaction to the commercialisation of the North American Christmas season. It started unofficially in 1968, when Ellie Clark and her family decided to publicly disregard the commercial aspects of the Christmas holiday to celebrate the holidays simply with her family, keeping capitalist corporations out of the celebrations.
Scholars, academicians and others may have many theories regarding whether or not Christmas bodes well for the economy. However, irrespective of which side of the discussion a person identifies with, one thing is clear – Christmas is a major cultural and economic force that’s here to stay. It’s no fluke that it has stood the test of time for centuries. Ultimately, it unites people both inside and outside their homes, leaving aside their differences to celebrate a day full of love, light and kindness.
Melvin Jacob and Siri Rajanahally for MTTN
All images courtesy Google Images